Critical Digressions: Literary Pugilists, Underground Men

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,

Cover200510_350_2 After being attacked for a number of years by a new generation of literary critics – indeed, sucker-punched, phantom-punched, even body-slammed – “contemporary” (or “postmodern”) prose has hit back: in this month’s Harper’s, one of our favorite publications (less than $10.99 for an annual subscription), one Ben Marcus has donned his fighting gloves – which seem a little big for his hands, his pasty, bony frame – climbed into the ring, earnestly, knocky-kneed, sweating from the hot lights, the camera flashes, the hoarse roar of the audience, the sense of anticipation, broken noses, blood…

Like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, Ben announces, “I am writing this essay from…a hole…” He continues:

“…it’s my view that…the elitists are not supposedly demanding writers such as myself but rather those who caution the culture away from literary developments, who insist that the narrative achievements of the past be ossified, lacquered, and rehearsed by younger generations. In this climate…writers are encouraged to behave like cover bands, embellishing the oldies, maybe, while ensuring that buried in the song is an old familiar melody to make us smile in recognition, so that we may read more from memory than by active attention.”

Fighting words, ladies and gentlemen! We’d like to tell you that Ben fought a good fight; that he came out swinging; that he staged an upset; that an underdog took on the emerging consensus on contemporary prose, shaped by the likes of James Wood, Dale Peck and B.R. Meyers, and according to Ben, Jonathan Franzen, Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Yardley. But criticism is no fairy-tale world, and Ben is no hero. A welterweight in a heavyweight fight, he doesn’t have enough behind his punch.

The ambitiously titled Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life As We Know It begins with a peculiar digression on the anatomy of the brain including a quick explanation of the Heschl’s gyri, Boca’s area and the Wernicke’s area (“think of Wernicke’s area as the reader’s muscle”), which may be novel, experimental, but has no business in a literary critique. Perhaps had Ben fused literary theory with neuroscience in a more serious, symbiotic, technically rigorous way, he may have achieved something. But just as Ben gets us thinking about the sort of neural implications of literature, he gets wishy-washy, namby-pamby:  “If we [writers] are successful, we touch or break readers’ hearts. But the heart cannot be trained to understand language…”

Tyson_fingers_shrunk_2 This, introduction may have been overlooked had Ben knocked the reigning heavyweight champions down by the second or third round. But he doesn’t. He quarrels with the prevailing neo-realist sensibilities of critics – that is, “The notion that reality can be represented only through a certain kind of narrative attention – and with those who argue against “literature as an art form, against the entire concept of artistic ambition.” He then has beef with Franzen: “Even while popular writing has quietly glided into the realm of the culturally elite, doling out its sever judgment of fiction that has not sold well, we have entered a time when book sales and artistic meit can be neatly equated without much of a fuss, Franzen has argued that complex writing, as practiced by…Joyce…Beckett and their descendents, is being forced upon readers by powerful cultural institutions…and that this less approachable literature…is doing serious damage to the commercial prospects for the literature industry.” Fair enough but not hard enough.

But though we want to Ben to win this fight because we champion underdogs and such contrarian projects on principle, Ben is quite unable to summon the fierce intelligence and evangelical zeal of, say, James Wood or the flamboyance and shock value of Dale Peck. He may pretend to be the Underground Man but he’s not a sick man…a spiteful man…” In 2001, however, B.R. Meyers, more non-entity than underdog, managed the sort of upset Ben aspires to. Writing in the Atlantic, his thorough, articulate attack began: 

“Nothing gives me the feeling of having been born several decades too late quite like the modern ‘literary’ best seller. Give me a time-tested masterpiece or what critics patronizingly call a fun read – Sister Carrie or just plain Carrie. Give me anything, in fact, as long as it doesn’t have a recent prize jury’s seal of approval on the front and a clutch of raves on the back. In the bookstore I’ll sometimes sample what all the fuss is about, but one glance at the affected prose – “furious dabs of tulips stuttering,” say, or “in the dark before the day yet was” – and I’m hightailing it to the friendly spines of the Penguin Classics.”

A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose caused commotion as the Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, Harpers, NYT, Washington Post and New York Review of Books joined the fray, a real battle royale. And Meyers came out on top: presently, he’s a senior editor at the Atlantic. When you hit hard, it doesn’t really matter what you say. So what’s Meyer’s beef? “What we are getting today is a remarkably crude form of affectation: a prose so repetitive, so elementary in syntax, and so numbing in its overuse of wordplay that it often demands less concentration that the average ‘genre’ novel.” And what is his methodology? He proceeds to categorize contemporary prose in four broad groups – “evocative,” “muscular,” “edgy,” “spare” and “generic ‘literary prose,’” – citing weak passages from the writers who he finds representative of each group; Proulx (Shipping News), McCarthy (All the Pretty Horses), Delilo (White Noise), Auster (City of Glass) and Guterson (Snow Falling on Ceders). Manifestly, Meyers packs a formidable punch.

Peck_1 Of course, even back in 2001, Meyers may have been a non-entity but was no underdog. Literary fashion has been changing well before him with Wood in pages the Guardian, and consequently in the New Republic, where Wood was joined by Dale “The Hatchet Man Peck. Peck, you may remember, famously proclaimed, “I will say it once and for all, straight out: it all went wrong with James Joyce…Ulysses is nothing but a hoax upon literature.” Like Tyson, Peck writes, “Sometimes even I am overwhelmed by the extent of the revaluation I’m calling for, the sheer f***ing presumptuousness of it.” In one critique, in one sentence in fact, Peck excises “most of Joyce, half of Faulkner and Nabokov, nearly all of Gaddis, Pynchon and DeLillo, not to mention the contemporary heirs.” This assertion makes for interesting if idle exercises: we mull, for example, which half of The Sound the Fury Peck would excise if given the opportunity – the first two books, of course, Benjy’s and Quentin’s – and what effect his reductive, retrograde editing would have on the novel as a whole. Peck, like Mike Tyson before him, bites ears off, and often punches below the belt, smack in the crotch. Tyson once said, “I wish that you guys had children so I could kick them in the f***ing head or stomp on their testicles so you could feel my pain because that’s the pain I have waking up every day.”

The New York Review of Books noted that “Like his colleague at the New Republic, the estimable and excellent James Wood, Peck seems to want more novels like the great [19th] century social novels: serious, impassioned, fat.” Were we to step into the ring, brandishing our shiny brown muscles, we would simply but forcefully argue that the world, that civilization, and literature with it, has moved a hundred years forward since the 19th century. Looking fondly back towards realism is quite literally retrograde, like those other Underground Men, Wahabi Islamists urging Muslims to return to the 7th century. The novel, like these critics and the critical canon (that includes the Russian Formalists, the New Critics, Structuralists, the Post-Structuralists, whatever), is grounded in a certain context. It’s is a palimpsest, distilling, processing the anxieties, sensibilities, the diction, the colloquial, news, popular culture, of a particular time and place and people.

Dreiser and Dos Passos, for example – two different writers, the former considered traditional, the latter experimental – were unable to write novels that are relevant today except as history, as part of evolution of the modern novel. On the other hand and off the top of our head, we just finished Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus – his first novel – which features a Jewish protagonist, a class divide, a sectarian divide, specific references and allusions to the fifties in America – including, incidentally, the title itself – but were charmed by the sweet, straightforward adolescent love story (and the voice). Unlike Manhattan Transfer, Goodbye, Columbus remains relevant. Some novels transcend their cultural and temporal trappings.

We dig Roth for different reasons than, say, Melville, Dostoevsky, Dickens. We dig 20th century writers for different reasons than their antecedents: the lyrical and frenetic Marquez and Rushdie, the postcolonial and serious Naipaul and Coetzee, the very contemporary, Franzen and Wallace.

Sure, from Dostoevsky to Wallace, the conventions of storytelling have changed and prose has become more self-conscious but don’t let the Underground Men lecture you that change is good or bad; change is. And we’ll tell you this much: anybody advocating cutting Nabokov down to size should be paraded naked in the ring, weak chest, hairy buttocks, spindly legs exposed, wearing his own novel as a fig leaf. Sure, some contemporary prose has become gimmicky, adjective laden, rife with metaphor (which in a way, is arguably Nabokov’s legacy); and sure, silly alliteration needs to be caught, condemned. Meyers will rightly beat you up for it. That’s his job, and Wood’s and Peck’s. Ben nobly got into the ring but he needs to train harder if he’s going to go twelve rounds with them. Somebody, however, needs to hit back, to keep it real.

As Eddie Scrap Iron Dupris once said (somewhat heavy-handedly), “Boxing is an unnatural act…everything in boxing is backwards: sometimes the best way to deliver a punch is step back…But step too far and you ain’t fighting at all.” We’re not entirely sure if this is relevant but it sure sounds good.

Other Critical Digressions:

Gangbanging and Notions of the Self

Dispatch from Cambridge (or Notes on Deconstructing Chicken)

The Three-Step Program for Historical Inquiry

The Naipaulian Imperative and the Phenomenon of the Post-National

The Media Generation and Nazia Hassan

Dispatch from Karachi